Category Archives: Education

The Importance of Literacy in Science

A few weeks ago, I heard a parent attempting to describe to their little one what time it was in a different time zone.  I don’t precisely remember how the parent described the difference, but it got me to think about things of this nature and how we go about explaining them to our little ones. Further to that, it made me consider the importance of literacy in science.

My thought on this is that if a parent is better able to explain the science behind some things to their kids, it might make it easier for the kids to remember the concepts (or understand why things happen). The scientific explanation would replace the, “Oh that’s just the way it is,” or “Just because,” answer that kids might often hear from their parents.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though, if when kids ask parents why the sky is blue, parents are able to coolly and calmly explain Rayleigh scattering? Or when when kids ask parents about the sun always rising in the East and setting in the West, parents can explain the Earth’s rotation? Or what about when kids ask parents about things always falling to the ground and parents can explain the basics of gravity?

I suspect that if parents are able to offer kids a scientific explanation for why things happen, it could give kids a better rooted understanding of the natural world around them. More than that, I suspect that if it becomes the “norm” that parents (and people) have a basic understanding of scientific concepts, it might change the way we look at Science (or STEM!).

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Now, I’m not saying that parents need to go out and get PhD’s in biology, chemistry, or physics, but having a basic understanding of some of the more popular questions could go a long way towards normalizing an understanding of the world around us. Think back to when you were a kid — right in the thick of that period when you asked your parents questions about everything. No doubt, your parents were able to answer some of your questions and give you reasonable explanations, but I suspect that up to a point, the explanation probably began to fell apart. That’s not for lack of trying on the parent’s part — you can only explain so much when it comes to things you don’t understand. But I wonder if your mom/dad were able to give you the best explanation (that is, what science seems to tell us is the most current theory for why something happens), would that have maybe motivated you to test that theory?

For instance, let’s say you were asking your parents about gravity and your mom/dad explained the difference between gravity on the Earth and gravity on the moon. Might that motivate you to consider what the gravity is like on other planets or what the gravity is like in space or what the gravity is like in something that even I can’t consider at this moment? Kids are full of imagination and creativity, and I think if we foster that imagination through some of humanity’s best understand of the world around us, we just might encourage our little ones to change the way we think about the world.

 

Stand and Deliver: We Think Better on Our Feet — Literally

Did you see the post from ScienceDaily a couple of months ago? As it turns out, we think better when we’re on our feet. Maybe more importantly though, given how much we tend to sit throughout the day, standing is a good way to change things up (and standing is actually better for us than siting).

This study looked at standing desks in the context of education. In particular, with regard to elementary school-aged children. Given the epidemic of obesity, particularly in America, it certainly seems like a good idea to try and tackle an issue at one of the roots (sitting). While we already know that as a general rule, standing is better than sitting, the researchers were interested in how this would affect the academic performance of students. The results obtained indicate that there are no adverse effects on engagement for those students who were standing. Translation: standing desks don’t negatively affect academic engagement. Wonderful!

Of course, the researchers make it clear that this applied to the sample they studied (about 300 students of 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-grade age, from three schools in one suburban school district), and that there’ll need to be replication. The thing that I’m most curious about moving forward is different ages. In particular, older students. I presume that there’d be similar effects found in 6th and 7th grade and for teenagers as well, but it’d be great to see this confirmed with data.

Why stop at high school, though. It’d also be great to see this for university students. I suppose you can see where I’m going with this, right?

Whenever I go to a conference or a talk somewhere, there are almost always a handful of people who can’t bear to sit through the whole thing and it’s not because of a lack of engagement from the speaker. It’s probably a combination of factors, but what if it’s also because they find that they (the audience members of the talk) can be more engaged when they’re standing in the back of the room (or off to the side)? And if, as adults, we think that we’re better engaged in what the speaker is saying when we’re standing, why don’t we also offer that same option to our kids?

ResearchBlogging.orgDornhecker, M., Blake, J., Benden, M., Zhao, H., & Wendel, M. (2015). The effect of stand-biased desks on academic engagement: an exploratory study International Journal of Health Promotion and Education, 1-10 DOI: 10.1080/14635240.2015.1029641

Pitch Perfect 2: A Sociological Perspective?

A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to see Pitch Perfect 2. In fact, it was the first movie I’ve been able to see in the theatre since becoming a parent and I have to say, I’m glad that it was one like this. If you’ve been reading the things I’ve written, you know I like to take a look at things in the grander picture. (In fact, I didn’t realize this until I started writing this post, but I wrote something about Pitch Perfect a couple of years ago.) Anyhow, the grander picture.

*SPOILER ALERT*

I should warn you that I plan on talking about elements of the movie that may spoil it for you, if you haven’t seen it, so either stop reading and go watch Pitch Perfect 2 right now (and then finishing reading when the movie ends) or read on with the knowledge that you may have part of the movie spoiled. If you’re reading on past this point, you’ve been warned…

The portion of the movie I’d like to discuss is right near the end. The Bellas are at the a capella World Championships and their nemesis — Das Sound Machine — has just given a great performance. Halfway through the Bellas performance, I’m thinking to myself, there’s no way the writer(s) could have written something that the Bellas could do to top what Das Sound Machine just did and the first half of this performance is proving that. At this point, it’s looking like the Bellas are ‘toast’ as they’ve begun singing an “original” song (is that a no-no in a capella competitions?). And then all the lights go out on stage and the singing stops momentarily. When the lights return, we see more than just the Bellas on-stage, we see Bellas from previous generations! Women that have long since graduated from Barden University have returned to help the current Bellas in their time of need.

Of course, that was enough to convince me that the performance was worthy of being deemed better than their opponents, but the more important part for me was the symbology of these previous generations of women who had come back to help the current generation of women. Forget for a moment that this is ‘simply’ a singing competition — this competition means a lot to these women. They’ve put their heart and soul into this and they really want to win. Their desire is no different from athletes who really want to win the championship in their sport of choice. So, seeing the previous generation of women come back to help the current generation was a very touching moment.

As a “white male,” I feel like don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to talking about the experiences of any minority (women included), but just the image of these mothers (and grandmothers?) who were doing what they could to help out the young folks was heart-warming. It feels like in today’s society, there’s a greater collective awareness of the plight of women. In fact, the first bill that President Obama signed into law was the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Even with this greater collective awareness feminists alike will tell you that we’ve still got a long way to go before there’s parity between the genders. With that in mind, I enjoyed seeing a movie that starred, was produced and directed by, women.

The “Real” Purpose of TV (& Movies): Education, Inspiration, and Storytelling, Part 2

A few years ago, I wrote a post about the purpose of TV and I think I sold it (TV) short. That is, in that post, I essentially decried TV:

Watching TV is a mechanism that allows people to stay at jobs that they are otherwise less pleased about. Being able to tune into a created reality (or sometimes an actual reality) of a situation that they envy or can vicariously live through is something that I think allows people to feel better about themselves and by extension their life. Feeling better about one’s life makes one less likely to reflect on the things that aren’t going as well as they would have planned in life. So, like I said, I don’t proclaim to know the real purpose of TV, but I think that it can be argued that a fair majority of television is meant to entertain, allow for escapism, and sustain employment.

While I still think that there’s some truth to what I wrote over 4 years ago, as I indicated earlier, I think I’ve sold TV short. And while we’re at it, movies, too. Maybe there’s more to TV and film than entertainment, escapism, and employment. Well, of course there is, but let’s get into it.

Maybe there’s also an element of education to it. Remember my post from the other week on fictional presidents and the sunk cost trap? If the the script were written differently, that could have shown viewers the more optimal choice.

Or what about the idea that watching a TV show or a movie can inspire us? Last year, Reese Witherspoon starred (and was rightfully nominated for an Oscar!) in the movie Wild. The movie was based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir regarding her trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. Importantly, the movie didn’t give viewers misconceptions about hiking 2,500 miles. It’s hard. With that being said, consider this:

“People are definitely worried about the ‘Wild’ effect, though we can’t really figure out what it is yet,” said Dan Moe, a baker from Portland, Oregon who’s hiking this year.

He said while he thinks there are more hikers on the trail this year, he hasn’t yet met anyone who’s out there because of the book or film.

“At least they don’t admit it,” he said.

To add to that:

Before the book was published, about 300 people would take out permits to attempt the full hike, which usually takes four to five months. It’s not yet known how many will try this year, but estimates range from 1,600 to 3,000 — 10 times the number who tried before the book came out.

So, while we may be wrong to infer causality here, there certainly appears to be a correlation worth noting.

There are two more things I want to address. The first, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” This is the motto of a movie/documentary of which I’ve written about many times before: Miss Representation. There has certainly been a lot of progress (at least there appears to have been) since that movie came out, with regard to women having more prominent roles, but similar to the anecdote from above, I’d caution on inferring causality. However, I will say that I’m glad to hear that it appears that there’s this concerted effort arising. For instance, did you know that there’s going to be female Thor? Or that they’re bringing back Macgyver as a female?

Lastly, there’s the idea that TV is a mechanism for storytelling. While that may seem obvious, consider the time before movies, TV, and radio, when we’d have to sit around the fire and tell stories to each other. This was the way that many things were passed on from generation to generation and now we have things like the Internet where we don’t even need to hear the story from someone — we can read all about it (and the blatant hyperbole contained within).

There was a great article on Vox a couple weeks back with the main thesis that the recent string of superhero movies have been an attempt to rewrite the images of 9/11. It’s really a very interesting read and I encourage you to check it out, but I think this adds to the idea that TV (and movies) are and can be much more to us than a place to escape. They can also be a place where we heal. That may seem somewhat ironic given that the average American spends 3 hours a day watching TV (and, in a sense, accelerates their ageing/death because of sedentariness), but maybe it’s time we have a bit more compassion for those among us who would rather go to the movies or binge-watch a season of Star Trek.

Does Everyone Want to Attend University?

There was an op-ed in the New York Times the other week that detailed some of the economic inequality in the US. It used academic data to discuss how poorly Americans estimate the level of social mobility. It’s certainly worth reading, but I wanted to highlight one section (and study):

Studies by another author of this article, the University of Illinois psychologist Michael W. Kraus, and his colleague Jacinth J.X. Tan, to be published in next month’s issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, found a similar pattern: When asked to estimate how many college students came from families in the bottom 20 percent of income, respondents substantially misjudged, estimating that those from the lowest income bracket attended college at a rate five times greater than the actual one documented by the Current Population Survey.

Now, it’s certainly worth noting how poor Americans are when it comes to estimating social mobility, (they’re certainly just as poor when it comes to estimating wealth inequality), but I’m curious about the desires of those in the bottom quintile. That is, many people espouse the values of higher education (full disclosure: I’m a professor at a higher education institution and I have two master’s degrees!), but what if everyone isn’t meant to go to university? More importantly, what if everyone doesn’t want to go to university?

Higher education is often held up as a mechanism for those in lower income quintiles to move up into a higher quintile (social mobility), but maybe people who come from the bottom quintile don’t want to go to university. I’m not in the bottom quintile nor did I grow up in the bottom quintile, so I have little to no authority to speak about the desires of those who come from the bottom quintile, but I think it’s worth asking what it is that the bottom quintile desires, specifically as it relates to higher education.

In raising this kind of question, it would, of course, be important to raise the issue of culture and how that influences one’s desires. That is, people who come from higher quintiles usually have parents (and friends) who think it natural to make the progression from high school to university. For some, attending post-secondary institutions of learning isn’t a choice — they’re forced to go. For those in the bottom quintile, attending a post-secondary institution of learning isn’t thought about in the same way. For many, it’s not “the thing you do after high school,” but instead, it’s held up as an ideal. It’s held up as a mechanism for transformation from being poor to not being poor.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say that people in the bottom quintile shouldn’t attend university or shouldn’t want to attend university, but I think that alongside data discussing that estimates university attendance of different levels of income, there should also be data discussing the desires of those different levels of income.

ResearchBlogging.orgKraus, M., & Tan, J. (2015). Americans overestimate social class mobility Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 58, 101-111 DOI: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.01.005

Is “A” Really the Best Option or is it Just that It’s Better Than “B”: List of Biases in Judgment and Decision-Making, Part 18

The other day, someone was talking to me about my series on biases in judgment and decision-making and it made me realize that I was missing a rather important bias — the contrast effect! I’m not sure how this one slipped through the cracks, but I’m glad to be able to write about it for you today.

It’s been almost a year and a half since I wrote something for this series, so let me refresh your memory. Each week, I took a cognitive bias and explained it. I provided an example and then I offered some ways for mitigating that cognitive bias in your own life. So, without further adieu, the contrast effect.

What’s the contrast effect? Well, as with many of the biases, it’s exactly what it sounds like: an effect that occurs because of a comparison. That is, people are more likely to perceive differences that are bigger or smaller because of something they’ve seen first. This is something that is used in sales — all — the — time. If you’re shopping for a new car, the salesperson may show a series of cars that are way out of your price range and then show you one that’s just a little out of your price range. After having seen so many cars that are way out of your price range, the one that’s just a little out of your price range won’t seem that far out of your price range. The contrast effect.

That’s not to pick on folks who sell cars, it can even happen with smaller purchases, shoes, for instances. Let’s say you’re looking for a particular kind of footwear. The salesperson may show you a bunch of shoes that don’t quite fit your needs and happen to be priced rather cheaply. Then, the salesperson shows you a shoe that does fit your needs, but is quite a bit more expensive. As you’ve seen all these shoes that aren’t what you need and now you’ve finally come to one that meets you’re needs, you may ignore the price and buy the shoes.

One of my favourite examples of the contrast effect comes from Dan Ariely‘s book, Predictably Irrational:

One day while browsing the World Wide Web (obviously for work-not just wasting time), I stumbled on the following ad, on the Web site of a magazine, the Economist.

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I read these offers one at a time. The first offer-the Internet subscription for $59 seemed reasonable. The second option-the $125 print subscription-seemed a bit expensive, but still reasonable.

But then I read the third option: a print and Internet subscription for $125. I read it twice before my eye ran back to the previous options. Who would want to buy the print option alone, I wondered, when both the Internet and the print subscriptions were offered for the same price? Now, the print- only option may have been a typographical error, but I suspect that the clever people at the Economist‘s London offices (and they are clever-and quite mischievous in a British sort of way) were actually manipulating me. I am pretty certain that they wanted me to skip the Internet- only option (which they assumed would be my choice, since I was reading the advertisement on the Web) and jump to the more expensive option: Internet and print.

But how could they manipulate me? I suspect it’s because the Economist‘s marketing wizards (and I could just picture them in their school ties and blazers) knew something important about human behavior: humans rarely choose things in absolute terms. We don’t have an internal value meter that tells us how much things are worth. Rather, we focus on the relative advantage of one thing over another, and estimate value accordingly. (For instance, we don’t know how much a six- cylinder car is worth, but we can assume it’s more expensive than the four- cylinder model.)

In the case of the Economist, I may not have known whether the Internet- only subscription at $59 was a better deal than the print- only option at $125. But I certainly knew that the print and-Internet option for $125 was better than the print- only option at $125. In fact, you could reasonably deduce that in the combination package, the Internet subscription is free! “It’s a bloody steal-go for it, governor!” I could almost hear them shout from the riverbanks of the Thames. And I have to admit; if I had been inclined to subscribe I probably would have taken the package deal myself. (Later, when I tested the offer on a large number of participants, the vast majority preferred the Internet- and- print deal.)

Before we movie into some of the ways for avoiding the Contrast Effect, I wanted to make it clear that sales isn’t the only place where this bias can creep up on us. Another good example is in evaluations (be they interviewing job candidates or marking term papers). If one doesn’t have a rubric by which one is scoring candidates (or papers), it can be easy to slip into the contrast effect: “Well, that candidate was much better than the last candidate, let’s put them through to the next round.” It could be that the latter candidate, while better than the first, still doesn’t meet your criteria to make it the next round, so putting them through would be wasting valuable resources — both yours and theirs.

Ways for Avoiding the Contrast Effect

1) Standardized Evaluation

In our most recent case involving interview candidates or term papers, creating a rubric or standardized method of evaluation prior to examining candidates/papers will go a long way to help one avoid falling into the trap of the contrast effect. This method could also be applied when it comes to shopping (i.e. sales). For instance, let’s say you’re looking for a car. Prior to arriving at the dealership, you could create a table for how you’re going to evaluate the cars you view while at the dealership. In this way, you can guard against the salesperson knowingly (or unknowingly) showing you cars at either end of the spectrum before showing you the cars you might actually purchase.

2) Are There Other Options?

Often times, when we’re succumbing to the contrast effect, we’re looking at option A versus option B. This is why it’s so important to have some sort of standardized evaluation (see #1), but short of a standardized evaluation, it’s important to remember that almost never are those two options your only two options. “Should I get this car or that car?” Well actually, you have another option — neither of those cars. And another option, you could consider buying a bike or maybe taking public transportation. Whenever you find yourself faced with a decision between two options, it can be useful to consider other options, just in case you’ve fallen into the trap of the contrast effect.

Note: the images in this post are all examples of the contrast effect.

If you liked this post, you might like one of the other posts in this series:

The Science of Us: Hank Green’s Crash Course in Anatomy and Physiology

As a professor, it’s probably not surprising that I like to learn. Even though I’ve completed a few degrees, I still try to make time to learn new things — daily. In fact, I’ve even shared these learning experiences. There was the Harvard University’s course on Justice with Professor Michael Sandel (I also went through one of his books chapter by chapter), there was my series on cognitive biases, there was MRUniversity’s course in economics, and before all of that, there was Crash Course.

This was probably one of the first video series that I came across that I felt like I actually learned (and remembered!) something 20 minutes after the video finished. I first went through John Green’s (the same John Green who wrote The Fault in Our Stars) crash course in world history. Later that year, John’s brother, Hank, did a crash course in ecology. John also did a crash course in literature. I didn’t realize it, but Hank also went on to do a crash course in psychology.

There are more crash courses than what I’ve just shared, but those are just a few to give you a taste. Anyway, the reason I’m writing today’s post is because I just learned that Hank is doing a crash course in anatomy and physiology.

Anatomy and physiology are two subjects that I’ve always wished that I spent more time with. In fact, they’re two subjects that I think we all should have spent some time with when we were younger. I used to have the idea that it seemed like a good idea if as part of our basic education, we learned anatomy and physiology and not as some form of “punishment” (as I understand some people don’t necessarily like these subjects), but because anatomy and physiology is/are us. Anatomy and physiology are the reason that you’re alive right now. This seems an appropriate reason to try and understand it.

More specifically, ‘anatomy is the study of the structure and relationships between body parts and physiology is the science of how those parts come together to function.’ Hank calls it, “The Science of Us.”

I’m not going into this expecting to remember every minute detail, but I am expecting that I will have a better understanding of how some of the parts of the body come together to function to make me, me! As an example, I was speaking with a massage therapist the other day and she told me that massage therapists often have to translate what their clients tell them. For instance, a client will often come in complaining that they want to work on their shoulder, while reaching for the area immediately adjacent to their neck. As it turns out, our shoulder is actually far closer to the place where our arm connects to our body. The place that this person was pointing to was, in fact, their neck.